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Obituary: Etienne Tshisekedi, 84

Philipp Sandner mc
February 2, 2017

Once a loyalist of autocratic ruler Mobutu Sese Seko, Tshisekedi founded Congo's first opposition party. Denounced as an opportunist, he succeeded in amassing a large following before his death.

Kongos Tschisekedi ist nach Kinshasa zurückgekehrt
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/P Photo/J. Bompengo

In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Etienne Tshisekedi was known as the Sphinx of Limete, named after his home neighborhood of Limete in the capital Kinshasa. Whenever the veteran opposition leader appeared to have been outmaneuvered by his opponents, he always managed to reclaim his place in the political arena. 

Final return

In the summer of 2016, it seemed that Tshisekedi's political career was past its zenith. Having been defeated at the polls by President Joseph Kabila five years previously, the chances of the ailing 83-year-old assuming the highest office in the land looked slim. Yet after two years of convalescence in Belgium, he staged a triumphant return to DRC. Tens of thousands stormed the airport to welcome him home, his motorcade took several hours to make the short journey through the crowds to his private residence.

Étienne Tshisekedi
Etienne Tshisekedi founded the Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS) in what was then Zaire in 1982 Image: picture-alliance/dpa/T. Roge

It was here in the company of a handful of close associates that Tshisekedi declared himself president in December 2011. Amid a climate of worsening political repression, he refused to accept the re-election of President Joseph Kabila. Outside the ranks of his Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS) party, there were many who dismissed this gesture as the act of a stubborn old man.  Consequently, Tshisekedi's followers were all the more aware of the need to ensure that the ground for his return to DRC was properly prepared. A coalition of opposition parties called Rassemblement was formed with the intention of ensuring that President Kabila stepped down when his second term - his final one under the constitution - expired at the end of the year. This was the vehicle, it was hoped, with which Tshisekedi would be propelled to the very top.  

Haggling and fighting

There were months of negotiations that were frequently broken off.  Kabila's second term came to an end on December 19, 2016 with no prospect of fresh elections in the foreseeable future. Tshisekedi called on Congolese to rise up in peaceful opposition to Kabila. A compromise between government and opposition parties was reached at the last moment on New Year's Eve. Fresh elections would be held within a year and Kabila agreed that he would not try to run for another term, nor would he seek amendments to the constitution which would enable him to do so legally. 

Kongo Joseph Kabila
Preisdent Joseph Kabila (center), accused by his opponents of unconstitutionally clinging to power, was forced by Tshisekedi to accept concessions Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/J.Bompengo

This was a compromise but it was also the final triumph of a veteran opposition figure and skillful and highly experienced politician.  Tshisekedi knew how to haggle and fight. By temporarily blocking the negotiations, he was able to force the government to give ground. He was also well aware of his own undiminished political stature. "He was an historic opposition leader in former Zaire, today's DRC," Tanzanian political analyst Jenerali Ulimwengu told DW. "He had that certain mystique that people look for in their political leaders - it is something that age cannot destroy," he said.

Tshisekedi may well have derived his strength from past acquaintance with the corridors of power. When the Congo gained independence from Belgium in 1960, he belonged to a small circle of intellectuals who were determined to plot and steer their country's future. Even though he hadn't completed his legal studies, he found himself running a college for law and administration. President Joseph Mobutu (who changed his name to  Mobutu Sese Seko in 1972) appointed him justice minister in 1968. Further cabinet appointments, ambassadorial posts and top management positions in state-run enterprises were to follow.  

Étienne Tshisekedi und Mobutu Sese Seko
Despite serving as prime minister under Mobutu Sese Seko (right), Etienne Tshisekedi (left) also challenged the dictatorImage: picture-alliance/dpa/P. Hertzog

 Tshisekedi was a Mobutu loyalist for 20 years. Then he became the first intellectual to criticize the president, calling for reforms in an open letter.  In 1982, he founded the country's first opposition party, the UDPS, which was immediately banned. Facing international pressure, Mobutu permitted the staging of a national conference to work out reforms. Tshisekedi was appointed prime minister in 1992. But hopes for change were quickly dashed when Mobutu's underpaid troops tipped the country into violent unrest.  Tshisekedi remained a key opposition figure even after Mobutu was ousted in 1997 and Zaire became the Democratic Republic of Congo. In 1993, Congolese writer Charles Djungu Simba sought explain Tshisekedi's role in Congo's first faltering transition to democracy. "It was not so much Tshisekedi himself, it was what he embodied, what the population saw in him," he said.    

End of an era

Under the New Year's Eve deal, Tshisekedi was to have taken the top post in a transitional council that would oversee Kabila's exit. But it was not to be.  Tshisekedi died in a Brussels hospital on Wednesday (01.02.2017) at the age of 84. His party, the UDPS, was a "school for democracy"  for many Congolese, said Congolese human rights activist Jean-Claude Katende. Ruling party spokesman Andre Alain Atundu also paid tribute to him.  The death of  Etienne Tshisekedi marked the "end of an era."